WA Aboriginal community reject $10 million per year for land rights

Andrew ‘Twiggy’ Forrest remains locked in a battle with a Western Australian Aboriginal community over mining on traditional land.

The Karijini traditional land of the Yindjibarndi people has red rocks heavy with iron ore, and Fortescue Metals has a lease which enables it to mine it as the $5 billion Solomon Hub project, expected to produce 60 million tonnes of ore per year initially.

The Yindjibarndi people have rejected a $10 million per year compensation offer from Forrest’s company, asking for four times that amount, in keeping they say, with compensation being offered by other big mining companies in the Pilbara.

One small group in the community does want to accept the lower offer, but most Aboriginal people in the area are against it, as Elder Michael Woodley told Jan Mayman, a West Australian writer who has been reporting on mining and Aboriginal issues for over three decades.

Woodley told her that their request for a higher amount of compensation is justified because the project will not only damage their land and religious sites, but also the people themselves.

“Ceremony, kinship and tribal law are the heart and soul of our life," he said.

"They connect us to the beginning of the world."

The challenge against FMG

Woodley is leading a campaign against Forrest challenging the legitimacy of mining leases held by Fortescue over 50 per cent of the Yindjibarndi tribal land.

He says the leases were granted last year by the state government, prior to an agreement being reached between the Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation about compensation.

Under federal native title law, members of the Corporation are the registered legal traditional owners, and members have requested the full bench of the Federal Court to declare the leases granted in 2010 invalid.
A judgement is due later this year.

Under state laws, Aboriginal traditional owners cannot legally stop mining, but they are entitled to negotiate land access compensation.

Many of the sums given as compensation are shrouded in secrecy, but are usually multi-million dollar sums and include protections for important sacred sites.

“But according to a Fortescue spokesman, Andrew Forrest does not believe in big dollar "mining welfare", saying it doesn’t help Aboriginal people, and this is why Fortescue is offering an annual compensation package of $10 million for the Solomon mine project,” Mayman’s article states.

The figure includes $4million to be paid in case and the remaining $6million to be given in “housing, training and employment”, although Fortescue have declined to comment on the provisions.

Woodley says his treatment by Fortescue has been “insulting”.

"They say they will mine 60 million tonnes a year at first, rising to 100 million tonnes or more in future. That 60 million is worth around $10 billion at today’s prices and these are rising all the time.

"Fortescue’s $4 million a year cash offer was for a fixed payment of just 0.057 per cent of the mine income. Rio [Tinto] would give us 10 times that amount."

Aboriginal jobs rejected

Even offers of jobs for local Aboriginal people have been slammed by Woodley, because he claims it is “just another attempt at white assimilation.”

"We don’t want to be trained as labour for Fortescue’s mines," he says.

"We want a fair share in the mineral wealth of our traditional country, to create our own businesses and jobs, to deliver better healthcare and educate our children.

"We are doing that already, through our Juluwarlu organisation, recording our languages, history and culture in books, CDs and films.”

The people in the Roebourne Aboriginal village, about 40 kilometres from the Pilbara mining town of Karratha have a high dependence on social security and 20 people are often crammed into the tiny homes where alcohol and drugs are rife.

Despite the offers of well-paying jobs in nearby mines, most Aboriginal people in the area are unwilling to make the change, and the imprisonment rates remain high.

Woodley said the Aboriginal people are scared by the idea of working in a mine on their traditional and many are illiterate, perhaps because the rate of school attendance remains low.

Damage to the land

The Yindijibarndis say they have a strong connection to the land and mining it will devastate them.

However, tribunal member Danial O’Dea said while mining would damage the land, the lease rights for Fortescue would be in “the public interest” and wrote that it would "create considerable positive economic benefit for the state and the nation, and that same positive effect may be experienced by the local economy including local Aboriginal people".

The traditional owners lost again when they appealed to the Federal Court, before appealing again before a full bench, claiming they are invalid under Commonwealth Native Title Act.

The Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation has also launched an attack against Fortescue on its website, including a hymn to their land, called the “Song for the Country FMG wants to destroy.”

Some Aboriginal support for FMG

But the small breakaway section of the Yindjibarndi community, the Wirrlu-Murras, who support the work of FMG organised a controversial meeting in Roebourne last week and voted to drop all legal action against the company, as well as accepting the current offer for compensation.

But the Corporation says many people at the meeting had no right to vote and they will mount a legal challenge against the decisions.

Forrest has long been a campaigner for giving Aboriginal people the chance to succeed in the mining industry and together James Packer designed the Generation One campaign, to bring Indigenous and non-Indigenous people together as one generation.

Ina  recording of the meeting, Forrest makes an emotional appeal to the crowd.

You can view the video as it appears on theYindjibarndi Action Group’s website here.

"The more you know Aboriginal people, the more you love them . . . I deeply respect Aboriginal people . . . my heart will always be with Aboriginal people."

He said his company employs 350 Aborigines, who earn a total of $24 million a year in Port Hedland, and he wants to help the people of Roebourne in the same way, as well as giving assistance with housing and training, and support for those who are unable to work.

Forrest said the accusation that FMG would benefit most from the $4 million for half the Yindjibarndi country was "complete and utter bulldust".

A spokesman for FMG said the company is always striving to help in creating a productive and sustainable future for all communities and that vision can only be realised through funding for education, training, jobs, safe and clean living environments and opportunity and not straight cash payments, although they form part of the contribution.

Woodley said he worked on a mine site for three years and earned good money, before a vision on the red hills made him completely alter his life.

"It was a group of our Old People, spirit people, standing there with their tall spears, just looking at me. I knew what they were telling me. It was time for me to go back and save our country."

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